It’s an architectural accident that happened over the last century at Bluffton Presbyterian Church. The church occupies land on the town square of this Ohio hamlet that sits 60 miles south of Toledo, but has been largely invisible to its neighbors due to a row of trees sheltering the church from the town.
“We’re at the corner of the one of two traffic lights in town,” says the Rev. David Good, the church’s interim minister. “We’re next to an empty lot which leads to the elementary school, but the trees wall us off from children and parents who are dropping them off—and from the town.”
Over time, the barrier of trees grew and blocked visibility. The congregation couldn’t see the town and the town didn’t notice the church, making it feel like the church lawn was private property. It never occurred to the 117-member village church to change it, until now. Although membership and attendance has held steady over the years, in the last decade there’s been a gradual decline, and the church has had transitional and interim ministry leaders since 2011.
When Good joined them in 2014 they were ready to go through the New Beginnings discernment and assessment process. Offered by the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the discipleship-based program helps presbyteries and individual congregations envision a new future for their churches.
“Knowing this church was ready to go through this discernment, assessment process was exciting to me,” says Good, who was an assessor for New Beginnings, prior to his arrival at Bluffton. “I knew of the breadth and depth of the process, how it challenges churches to address the question, ‘how are we relating to our neighbors?’”
As Bluffton Presbyterian began talking about how they were relating to their town they began to recognize how they’d accidentally sent a message to those around them. They started to see how everyone driving by the church to drop off their children at the elementary school couldn’t see them. How they didn’t fully engage in community functions that were held on the block right next to them, by the empty lot. Even when a street festival, like the annual craft fair, takes place, the church lawn isn’t unusable, because the trees block it.
The congregation quickly realized the irony of the situation. They owned one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in town, yet it was working against them because it was underdeveloped.
“One of things that came out of New Beginnings is that we wanted to continue to work on our relationships with the town,” says Good. “We’re now having conversations with our neighbors about how this square—that has kept us from seeing each other—can best be developed for the use of the town.”
Four options are being discussed for the project that will make the church square more accessible to the town. Bluffton Presbyterian will hold a congregational meeting before the end of the year to determine the “scale of accessibility” and discern which option gives them the best opportunity to engage their neighbors who come downtown to weekly events like the farmers market, and annual events like the “Blaze of Lights” folk arts light celebration, which brings thousands of people to the “town square” for the community Christmas celebration.
If you're interested in going through the New Beginnings discernment and assessment process individual congregations are currently being scheduled for December, as time allows. Click here for more information or contact your presbytery to see if, and or when, New Beginnings is being offered in your presbytery.